Communion from the Cup

The Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) arose in 13th century Belgium at a time when theologians were debating fiercely the real presence of Christ in the eucharist. It has generally focussed on the real and enduring presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine. But the eucharist is always more then processions and benediction. Christ said at his last supper: “Take this and eat; take this and drink; do this in memory of me.” The action of eating and drinking takes us to the heart of the mystery of Corpus Christi. So I would like to take theopportunity of this feast to add to a response from Fr Chris Hanlon’s “Question Box” (CL June 18).
A reader asked: “Is it true that Communion under two species was approved by the Second Vatican Council for Masses attended by a small congregation, only on weekdays?”
Fr Hanlon pointed his correspondent to the Introduction to the Roman Missal to find the answer. Paragraph 14 of the introduction to that document – commonly called the “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” (GIRM) - says this:
“The Council gives permission for the reception of communion under both kinds on some occasions, because this more explicit form of the sacramental sign offers a special means of deepening the understanding of the mystery in which the faithful are taking part”.
It would be a pity if the precise legal meaning the word “some” became more important than key concepts such as “more explicit form of the sacramental sign” and “deepening the understanding of the mystery”.
The “General Instruction” takes the matter further in paragraph 240: “Holy communion has a more complete form as a sign when it is received under both kinds. For in this manner of reception a fuller light shines on the sign of the eucharistic banquet. Moreover there is a clearer expression of that will by which the new and everlasting covenant is ratified in the blood of the Lord and of the relationship of the eucharistic banquet to the eschatological banquet in the Father’s kingdom.”
After outlining fourteen cases when communion under both kinds is permitted, “The General Instruction” leaves it for the conferences of bishops to decide under what considerations and conditions communion under both kinds may be given on significant occasions in the life of any community or group of the faithful.
There is no celebration more significant to the life of the Church than the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. It is at the Sunday Eucharist that the Church is most evident as a sign of the presence of Christ in the world. At the Sunday Eucharist the faithful of God gather to express their faith and are strengthened as the body of Christ.
Consequently in 1986, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference granted permission for communion under both kinds at Masses on Sundays and feastdays if, in the judgement of the Ordinary, communion can be given in an orderly and reverent way. (Rescript of the Holy See 7/86 of 13th January, 1986).
Therefore, it is now possible to receive the cup as well as the host at Mass on Sundays and weekdays. Why has this change come about? After so many years, it is hardly a novelty or just one more liturgical change. If it has not yet become the normal pattern in a particular parish, this feast might be a good opportunity to reflect on the command of Christ and to review parish practice.
During the early centuries, everybody received under both kinds: this was the way Christ instituted the eucharist. But for various unfortunate reasons, during the middle ages the practice spread of lay people not receiving the cup. Eventually it became law in the west that only the priest should receive the cup. (In the eastern church they have always received under both kinds).
Not least among the reasons for restricting communion from the cup was a sacramental minimalism. The bread alone was sufficient because in the bread we receive the living Christ. Although the Church teaches that Christ is truly present in either the bread or the wine, we have now realised that a “fuller light shines on the eucharistic banquet” when we take both.
When we take the cup, we take up the cross. “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” Jesus asked James and John. It is also the cup of thanksgiving: “The cup of salvation I will raise as I call on God’s name” (Ps 116). Drinking from a common cup signifies our life together in Christ and our commitment to one another. The common cup makes us one family.


Elizabeth Harrington